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Big Changes at Aytzim: WZC and Welcoming Jews of the Earth

By David Krantz

16 Tammuz 5780  /  8 July 2020

Did you know that U.S. elections for 38th World Zionist Congress were held this year? With the coronavirus crisis, protests against police brutality, Israel's plans for annexing the West Bank, and the ongoing U.S. election campaign, it is understandable if you missed it. It also was dubbed “the worst election yet” by Tablet magazine — and for the first time since the 1990s, Aytzim’s Green Zionist Alliance was not on the ballot.

The World Zionist Congress — the elected body that controls the World Zionist Organization, Keren Hayesod, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael / Jewish National Fund in Israel (KKL-JNF) — was established by Theodor Herzl in the 1890s as a Diaspora voice in governing what would become the Jewish state, Aytzim’s Green Zionist Alliance had been the first and only environmental group to ever have seats at the Congress. But our absence from this year’s ballots means that our role at the WZC is ending. 

For almost two decades, Aytzim has utilized the World Zionist Congress to obtain seats on the board of KKL-JNF, where Aytzim representatives typically have been the only environmentalists in top KKL-JNF leadership. But no more. For years Aytzim pushed KKL-JNF to become more environmentally sustainable, to participate in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to treat Jews and non-Jews fairly, and to protect the Jerusalem Forest — but no more. Those who favor development over conservation have long sought this day, when Aytzim's Green Zionist Alliance would no longer represent an obstacle to building roads and shopping malls in forests. And indeed, much construction in the Jerusalem Forest already has begun. This could have been averted — but participation in the World Zionist Congress is a pay-to-play enterprise. While voters are charged to exercise their right to vote — typically between $5 and $10 — parties, with the exception of new slates, must pay a minimum of tens of thousands of dollars simply for the privilege of running in the election. It has been a worthwhile investment for Aytzim to date, but this election cycle we simply did not have anywhere near enough money to continue.

Through the World Zionist Congress process, Aytzim passed nine laws in Israel and we dramatically changed KKL-JNF. Our work led to hundreds of miles of bike trails being built across Israel; the declaration of new nature preserves such as in Nes Tsiona; millions of trees being planted that otherwise would not have been planted; and we changed the types of trees that are planted so that most of them are now suitable for Israel’s semi-arid climate. For every dollar we received in donations we were able to make thousands of dollars in impact through our work in the World Zionist Congress, but we did not have the capital to continue. With your support we can aim to return to the ballot in 2024.

Our electoral struggles are shared by our Israeli sister organization, HaYeruka, the largest Israeli environmental party who for the first time since its founding a dozen years ago by Eran Ben-Yemini and Aytzim cofounder Alon Tal, did not run a slate in Israel’s elections for Knesset. Part of the problem is systemic — in Israel, the mandatory minimum percentage of the vote required to gain a Knesset seat has risen steadily specifically to keep out smaller parties such as HaYeruka. And in the United States, the electoral system for the World Zionist Congress allows new slates to run in elections with little financial barriers while encumbering established but small parties such as Aytzim with tens of thousands of dollars in dues payments simply to participate. The result is that in elections for both the World Zionist Congress and Knesset, we are witnessing too little fiscal and political support for environmental parties such as Aytzim’s Green Zionist Alliance and HaYeruka.

While Aytzim’s Green Zionist Alliance will no longer be in the World Zionist Congress, it will continue its mission of education and advocacy about Israel’s environment through resources available at aytzim.org and Jewcology.org as well as, after the coronavirus pandemic has ended, through in-person meetings and public lectures. And the Green Zionist Alliance is only one of the projects in the Aytzim grove. The others are Jewcology.org, the online home of the Jewish-environmental movement; Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth, a cross-denominational international group for Jewish-clergical environmental advocacy; and EcoJews, a regional group for Jewish-environmental activities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now we are pleased to welcome a fifth project to the Aytzim grove: Jews of the Earth.

Jews of the Earth was founded in 1999 by former Aytzim board member Daniel Ziskin in Boulder, Colo., as a regional group for Jewish-environmental social activities and small-scale conservation projects. Jews of the Earth recently moved to suburban Washington, D.C., and going forward it will focus on regional organizing of Jews for projects such as environmental advocacy and adoption of solar energy. Everyone at Aytzim is very happy to welcome Jews of the Earth to the Aytzim grove.

Lastly, we are proud to have joined with a few dozen organizational partners to launch JTree, part of an initiative to plant 50 million trees in U.S. forests. You can plant trees too and join the Jewish effort to replenish the Earth.

Everything that we are able to accomplish at Aytzim is made possible because of your support. Please consider making a donation today to support Aytzim and its projects, EcoJews, the Green Zionist Alliance, Jewcology, Jews of the Earth, and Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth.

David Krantz is the president and chairperson of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.



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